Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Flux/Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd
First Edition: October 1, 2012
Elizabeth Williams is your typical introverted high school nerd girl, looking forward to the freedom that graduation should bring. Paige, her Gwen Stefani-esque BFF since kindergarten, makes sure that Elizabeth is not a complete wallflower, but she still prefers listening to music – that, at least, she is passionate about.
Gabe Williams is also passionate about music. So passionate, in fact, that he has volunteered to DJ the midnight to 1:00 am time slot at community radio station 90.3 KZUK in Maxfield, Minnesota (a town that has “zero excitement, forty thousand people, two high schools, one college, and lots of crap-ass radio stations”). He calls his show “Beautiful Music for Ugly Children”, and it’s an eclectic mix of today’s music, older classics, one hit wonders, kitsch, glitz, glam, rock, punk, funk, pop, disco, country and always, always Elvis.
But here’s the thing: Elizabeth and Gabe are the same person.
My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. Gabe. My parents think I’ve gone crazy, and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right. I’ve been a boy my whole life. I wish I’d been born a vampire or a werewolf instead, or with a big red clown nose permanently stuck to my face, because that stuff would be easy. Having a brain that doesn’t agree with your body is a much bigger pain in the ass.
Ok, so Elizabeth isn’t all that typical after all. But her struggle – his struggle – to be accepted is pretty universal.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is a Young Adult title that can definitely carry a larger audience. In fact, it should carry a larger audience. In this day and age when every motivation, every step, every utterance of any given person can immediately be magnified and sound-byted and transmitted and championed (or held up for derision), society’s most responsible step is to seek out an understanding of that which is unfamiliar, even (or especially) uncomfortable. The more lenses we have to filter what is being thrown at us (and what we choose to wade into) the more chances we have to clearly focus on the heart of the matter, and make responsible decisions and share responsible opinions on those matters.
But there is a story to tell here, with many different threads making up the whole. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is also a book about relationships, which are so critical to young people on the edge of adulthood. Gabe has a loving, if bewildered, family, and their reluctance to give up what they assumed to know shows, frustratingly, maddeningly, and poignantly. He has a best friend with whom he can be open and who is a rock to his stormy sea, even if sometimes there’s a slippery slope associated with that relationship. And he has a next door neighbor – John, an older, honest-to-goodness former DJ (from Memphis, with a houseful of vinyl and CDs, a guy who was the first ever to play Elvis on the radio) – who is an invaluable mentor and friend; someone to whom Gabe’s identity comes a distant second to their shared love of music.
Gabe also has new friends and new potential entanglements that come from his having a radio show; a surprising development for someone who up to now has spent most of his life in the shadows. This new modest something-like-celebrity, mixed with understandable fear (including the anxiety over having listeners of Gabe’s who may have known Elizabeth in school) is a rush for a youngster who is starting to glimpse a future full of promise, on many different levels.
But just as Gabe gains confidence and starts to explore his talent, a hatred and bigotry materializes which brings up all the doubts that were starting to recede, and Gabe realizes that his life is going to get far more complicated before it gets easier, if it gets easier. Yet when that hatred – misdirected, as it often is, yet still malevolent – threatens friends and family, Gabe’s life suddenly becomes far more real. Gabe is willing to ‘pay the price’ for living his life openly and honestly, but is he willing to allow those he loves to be part of that bargain, as well?
There are no super-hero heroics to be found in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. There are no happily ever afters at the end of this book, and few characters remain untouched by the events that unfold. But there is hope, and there is the revelation that not everyone is willing to succumb to the noise and the fury that accompanies the ‘might makes right’ mentality. Even though the question of “who is winning” may be in doubt, there is hope. Which means, ultimately, that this book mirrors life.
“How about some really lovely pop music? Here’s ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ from the Plain White Ts, on community radio 90.3, KZUK. It’s a little mushy, which I’m generally not, and I know it’s about a romantic relationship, but listen close – the words could apply to anyone. So this one’s for you, John, and you too, Paige, because I love you as much as I love him. Thanks for saving my ass, you guys. And thank you, Ugly Children Brigade, for accepting me. I can never tell you how much that means.”
While the message of acceptance is clearly central in this book, what struck me most was how “normal” Gabe is. He’s just another kid, born to an average family, in a typical town. He’s not subversive, his thoughts are not freaky or immoral or abhorrent. They are simply the angst and fears and joys and hopes of any other teen aged kid. And that’s such an important point to stay focused on – something that author Kirstin Cronn-Mills does beautifully. So often, it’s not the individuals who are deviant, it’s our own thoughts and attitudes about some culturally perceived notion of “normalcy”. The kids – they’re just kids. They’re just trying to figure it all out.
Having stories like Beautiful Music for Ugly Children available is a step in the right direction in helping all of us acknowledge differences in our society. Books like this help to remove a tawdry mystique from a somewhat taboo form of diversity and place it squarely in the “hey, it’s no big deal, it’s just my life” realm. Because just ‘cuz something is not the norm, doesn’t make it abnormal, it just makes it… different. As Gabe says, “When you think about it, I’m like a record. Elizabeth is my A side, the song everybody knows, and Gabe is my B side – not heard as often, but just as good… It’s time to let my B side play.”
And it’s also time for us to listen.